Stumbling on Chelsea

John Haber
in New York City

Gallery-Going: Chelsea in Fall 1999

Weekend critics like me should try visiting Chelsea on a weekday more often. It offers a healthy reminder. Art really has left the old crowds behind for a still-active warehouse and office district.

Soho's sidewalk sales and gawking teenagers getting in art's way? A stale piece of cake. Here one has to step around potholes, trucks, and loading platforms. Join me as I step over them to check out work by Andreas Slominski, Gary Hill, Eric Magnuson, Diane Samuels, and Céleste Boursier-Mougenot. From rat traps and monitor cables to a cathedral of backyard swimming pools, they leave plenty of things to stumble over, physically and emotionally as well. Andreas Slominski's Dog Trap (Metro Pictures, 1999)

Dating tips for the VCR challenged

In more than one sense, the art world means business. Studios of unknown artists share the halls with design firms, and both would rather get their job done than convince me they are hip.

They hardly need to. They know this critic is not. I could hardly forget that the area has completed its trajectory—from the idealistic pioneers of Chelsea's earliest days to the only game in town.

New immigrants pour in, not workers off the Hudson piers—or even just the many artist born elsewhere, as relfected in the 2000 Whitney Biennial—but galleries from uptown and down. Miller and Gagosian have the latest immense constructions. The first outrageously pricey clothing store interrupts the door-to-door galleries, but only barely. Its artfully anonymous tunnel entrance lured me inside. Surrounded by upscale bistros, the Empire Diner looks less like a truck stop these days than a theme restaurant, but the diner theme has ample room for $8.95 portabello mushroom sandwiches and homemade chips.

In other words, Chelsea's serious tone means reverse chic, all as part of the pressure to stand out. Fortunately, trendy translates into some of the best exhibitions I have seen in months. And they get spaces so huge and well-lit that any artist would die to leave Soho or 57th Street.

If I had any doubts where Chelsea stands, I knew at last when I got thoroughly ignored and insulted. One much-touted gallery (perhaps best left unnamed) barked at me for going anywhere close to viewing the art. Hey, jerks like me had broken the tape twice already. Since the fragile VCR promised hidden-camera clips of dating, the woman's touch of yuppie anger made me feel that I had seen the work anyhow. And I do not mean in the archives of video art.

Better ask before touching, then? (Oops, more like dating.) After ten minutes of patient silence between showings of still another video, the gallery directly downstairs barked that I had better wait some more. I did not, but at the very next exhibition, the front desk looked awfully high.


Maybe the art world is laying a trap for the unwary amateur, yet again like sex. Andreas Slominski has set plenty of traps, in fact, and one of them pretends already to have caught a rat. The German artist's small objects at Metro Pictures resemble wooden constructions, redolent of early Modernism. Some larger, steel-mesh cages could have come right out of the days of earth works. Or maybe not. Better stand back.

Forget Carl Andre and Minimalism's invitation to experience one's environment. Those are sharp spikes in there. Signs everywhere warn of danger: no animals or children allowed.

Slominski has created what look like animal traps or laboratory devices, the better to play on Modernism's authority. Like many critics, he traces modern art to an age of individualism, an age that includes nineteenth-century science and its controlling environments. Gallery-goers, too, postmodernists claim, depend on that culture. The individual eye of the art-world consumer, not unlike the eye of science or perspective, coyly looks down on nature and art works. No wonder I was asked to look down at the traps rather than enter into them.

Thankfully, Slominski manages to stay tongue-in-cheek. Postmodern pranks, after all, do also include phony advertising slogans and pretend shocks to viewers who know better. Think of Nayland Blake's games with de Sade or with childhood, Maria Epes's gun-shot self-portraits—or the warnings at the Brooklyn Museum to accompany "Sensation." Mayor Giuliani merely failed to heed them. A natural mistake for a newcomer to contemporary art, not to mention a right-wing opportunist.

Once again, Modernism and Postmodernism get along fine after all, even feeding on one another. If anything, rather than a cheap set-up at the expense of modern art, one faces an overly cute joke. Those warnings would sound heavy-handed, only the desk clerk makes no effort at all to see what one is doing in the next room.

I climbed right into a cage, gratefully noting the dead rat's ugly helplessness. Heck, the trendier postmodernists from England would have held the rat up as a role model.

Surrealism as A/V studio

Next door, Gary Hill analyzes experience like a scientist himself, but he prefers that one learn to accept it. Hill tries to make experience tangible, from gestures to language, and he locates human feelings in a place where the connections break down. His early video art therefore had a romantic attachment to nature's depths, the kind that has Slominski and the postmodernists smirking. Yet while Bill Viola gets more bombastic every year, each successive show from Hill has brought the viewer down closer to earth, where one can learn afresh to live alone with oneself—or to remain puzzled at the work of one's own hands. This could be the finest yet from the best video artist I know.

More and more, Hill charts the ordinary, fragile world of touching and seeing. He gains complexity by never letting one forget that those words are central to art as well. One new work arranges three monitors in a triangle, like a warped self-portrait—a head flanked by two hands. The images move together in real time. However, they do not simply split up a single view from a single pair of eyes. They come at the same scene from different angles. They can even overlap in what they see or cut off.

Hands and eyes—the very things that a philosopher used to think make one human—get free rein. Yet by analyzing experience through them, Hill suggests a complexity behind vision to unnerve traditional philosophy as firmly as any contemporary theorist. Like Foucault, Lacan, and other more recent philosophers, he knows that awareness is mixed up not just with the mind or eye but with a whole human body.

The video shows the hands making spirals and then outlines of one another. The subject connects art to the same concerns as Hill shows with the medium, the same apparently simple but elusive modes of analyzing touch and understanding.

My favorite of the five works at Gladstone tackles video art as subject matter even more directly. The screen shows a single scene, its sole cast such props as monitors and tables. They appear in high-contrast black-and-white as a surrealist's nightmare. The otherworldly aura goes beyond the echoes of de Chirico, however—beyond the intense light, futuristic setting, and stark absence of people. By taking one backstage, into the mundane world of his craft, Hill makes one wonder at how any experience fits together—and how closely art and experience converge.

In fact, Hill makes the actual room feel just as fantastically 3D. One tumbles right into a chaos of cables, monitors of all sizes, and huge screens. As a camera pans, the single image leaps from screen to screen, no doubt at random. Hill challenges one to guess where it will go next and to catch it before it disappears once more. Caught in the refusal of narrative, much less drama, I longed for the image to reach the largest projection screen. I lost any sense of the scene's actual size and shape the more it became so coldly familiar.

The stacks of my tears

A simpler bit of fun turns art into a faceless blank, too. At Silverstein, Eric Magnuson paints big, single-color panels filled with words. They add up to clichés, old phrases involving that color's name—but with this word replaced by empty parentheses. Feel (  ) reading my reviews? I do talk a (  ) streak, don't I?

In all honesty, only the black panel and the white one really work. They benefit from the association of each with blankness, mirroring the emptiness in place of a word or indeed in place of any meaning. They make the monochrome concept consistent, too, since the writing no longer interrupts a color. They make the writing harder to notice as well, aiding the play on abstraction. More simply, they make the joke harder to figure out, too—and twice as fun.

Science and technology need not feel unemotional, though. A truly moving show uses a laser to make light as tangible as human tears. Paradoxically, it uses a laser's destructive power to evoke lost, intimate communities of the past.

Diane Samuels uses her laser to slice a teardrop out of sheet glass. Displacing the shape slightly on each of twelve stacked sheets, she creates a moving image from the passage of light. Seven stacks, seven minutes, twelve frames per minute, moment by moment, as ordered as film stills. Nearby, she rips layers of thin, dark paper by hand to create the same shape—and the same touchingly fragile movement of time.

These delicate materials represent at once those two kinds of fragility, personal memory and horribly crushed lives. An actual teardrop of light and shadow struck Samuels this last year, when she visited the site of a destroyed synagogue in Eastern Europe. Now she makes history as immediate as the sharp edges of glass and my own thoughts. (Work after this show returns to the same sites, for images of the ground on which she stands.)

Samuels's dealer, Kim Foster, is wonderfully solicitous, both in protecting these precious materials and explaining their associations. Besides, she kept me from stopping to calculate how far light actually travels in seven minutes. Well, okay, at least for a moment: about 125 million kilometers. A former physics student ought to know, though a Jew ought sometimes to forget.

Bells and laughter

After all those mysteries, my single favorite show that Chelsea afternoon let me relax a little. The central room at Paula Cooper has defeated many an artist. Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, however, has let art loose before to soar above my head. No wonder he at last fills the space to perfection.

This past year, at P.S. 1 in Queens, he made one share an environment and environmental art with live birds. Here he let me end my trip with the sound of bells. Along with hardly more than five blue plastic circles, they rise to fill that gloriously high, gabled ceiling, especially with the aid of one's own laughter.

Decades ago, Paula Cooper opened the first gallery in Soho. Sadly and yet hopefully, her departure to Chelsea could stand for art's trajectory better than anything. Make that anything but taking on a young artist after a studio show that critics had pretty much ignored.

Boursier-Mougenot has set out five blue circles, arranged in an arc parallel to the central room's three back walls. Already, in that second before I could spot their identity, they brought the walls in just a bit, for a much-needed touch of intimacy.

As I passed the desk a moment before, I heard what I took for wind chimes. Now I saw five ordinary plastic swimming pools, the kind big enough for backyards and toddlers. In each, inexpensive plates, saucers, and glasses casually circle with currents of water. As they randomly collide with each other, or with a bit of metal dropped over each pool's rim, they ring out. This work sings.

Solemnity, surprise, and laughter, commercial materials and sensory overload—that sums up all these shows pretty well. For now, it also sums up the promise of art's trendiest warehouse district. For now. Now if only I knew that I could always walk out on that VCR. As one says in video land, stay tuned.

BACK to John's arts home page

Each show ran roughly through October 1999, Andreas Slominski at Metro Pictures, Gary Hill at Barbara Gladstone, Eric Magnuson at Daniel Silverstein, Diane Samuels at Kim Foster, and Céleste Boursier-Mougenot at Paula Cooper.


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